Just in time for summer grilling and picnicking, meet "Karen," the new "virtual representative" at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at Karen, a composite image fronting for a computer that recognizes key words, promptly answers questions.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food poisoning causes 76 million illnesses and up to 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Most cases, the CDC says, can be prevented through safer food handling. Don't know what's safe? Type in your question and see if Karen can help.


We were impressed by Karen's knowledge about why a food thermometer beats a clock for gauging when meat or poultry is done cooking. (Proper cooking times vary with cooking methods and size of cut.) And the fact sheet on safe barbecuing -- included as a recommended link in response to a query -- is fascinating.


Sometimes Karen seemed a bit ditsy. We had to rephrase a question about the need to refrigerate potato salad several times before she understood and provided an answer. Similarly, when we asked whether it's safe to use raw eggs in Caesar salad dressing, her reply concerned Easter eggs.


FSIS officials were sympathetic to our complaints about the system -- and say the glitches should be worked out by Thanksgiving. In the meantime, there's still the FSIS meat and poultry hot line, 888-674-6854.